Changes in the benefit system will make life even harder for cash-strapped temporary teachers, says Anat Arkin.
A shake-up of the state benefit system is threatening to make life harder for supply teachers who used to claim unemployment benefit when their work dried up in the school holidays.
Like income support, the new Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) is not paid to people who work, on average, 16 hours or more a week. But when calculating the average number of hours worked by supply teachers and school ancillary workers, Employment Service staff do not take account of school holidays. So a supply teacher who works, say, 18 hours a week during term time would not be entitled to the allowance, even though her weekly working hours averaged out over a year come to less than 16.
Even the supply teachers who do work fewer than 16 hours a week in term time will now have to jump new hurdles before they can claim the allowance, which varies according to the claimant's age (Pounds 28.85 for under-18s, Pounds 37.90 for 18 to 24-year-olds and Pounds 47.90 for those 25 or over). Under a process known as "active signing", they must produce evidence of the number of jobs they have applied for or interviews they have attended each time they sign on.
"It's a process that assumes guilt and asks people to prove their integrity, " says Liverpool supply teacher, Val Curtis, who discovered last summer that some Jobcentres were piloting active signing before the JSA's formal launch.
For the past couple of years Ms Curtis, who is single, has just about managed to survive on two or three days' supply teaching a week. But without any other source of income, she has had to claim unemployment benefit in the school holidays.
When she went to her local Jobcentre to sign on for the second time last summer, officials demanded evidence that she had been actively looking for work in the previous two weeks.
Although she had signed on before the end of term, as she had only been actually unemployed and receiving benefit for two weeks, she thought this interrogation unreasonable - and said so.
But she backed down and gave details of the efforts she had been making to find a permanent teaching job after one of the officials told her she should be looking for permanent work outside teaching.
The information Ms Curtis provided did not, however, satisfy the Jobcentre's staff, who immediately handed her a letter saying that because there was doubt about her entitlement to unemployment benefit, she would not be paid until the matter had been sorted. An independent adjudicator eventually ruled that she was entitled to benefit, but she had to wait several more weeks to receive her money.
If Ms Curtis, and others in her position, try to claim the JSA next summer they may find that they are forced to look for work outside teaching. In theory, JSA claimants are allowed to restrict their job search to their usual occupation for the first 13 weeks of unemployment. After that, they are expected to widen their search and take whatever comes along.
"But the reality is that if there aren't any teaching jobs around in the summer, they will be forced to take up any kind of work immediately," says Ian Murray, senior researcher with the Unemployment Unit, which monitors the welfare system.
Supply teachers who do take up jobs in fast-food restaurants or shops over the summer could face trouble in the future.
If they give up these non-teaching jobs in September when schools start crying out for supply staff, they could be judged to have become voluntarily unemployed - and therefore not eligible for the JSA when they next sign on.
As the Government has only just introduced the JSA, its effect on supply teachers will not become clear until the next long school holidays.
But the experience of school meals staff and other hourly-paid workers, who tried to claim the allowance over the recent half-term holiday, is not encouraging.
According to Unison, the union representing many of these workers, some were told they were not entitled to the allowance because they had jobs to go back to after the holidays, while others received the money they expected but were then asked to return it. The way they were treated seemed to depend on how individual Jobcentre staff interpreted the new rules. Some supply teachers who in the past managed to make ends meet with the help of unemployment benefit may decide to leave the profession if they fail to qualify for the JSA.
This would clearly have serious consequences for schools, which in the past few years have become increasingly dependent on temporary and supply teachers.
Mr Murray argues that while talking about the importance of a flexible labour market to the national economy, the Government is failing to support the growing army of flexible workers.
"What they are doing with the Jobseekers' Allowance is penalising people who are taking up jobs in the flexible labour market," he says.
DESPERATELY SEEKING A FAIR ALLOWANCE
The Jobseekers' Allowance, which has replaced unemployment benefit and income support for unemployed people: * cuts entitlement to contributory, non-means-tested benefit from 12 to six months; * imposes a means test on those unemployed for more than six months; * denies means-tested benefit to claimants with savings of more than Pounds 8,000 or partners with full-time jobs; * reduces means-tested benefits to those with savings of between Pounds 3, 000 and Pounds 8,000 or partners with part-time jobs; * requires all claimants to sign a "jobseekers' agreement" setting out the type of work they want and how they intend to look for it; * obliges claimants to produce evidence that they have been actively looking for work every time they sign on; * requires jobseekers to follow Employment Service "directives" - for example, to smarten up their appearance or take a training course.